Six years ago, a student in my class, Joseph Tsai, wrote the greatest SAT essay ever. No joke.
I’ll share it with you in a minute, but before I do, let me set it up:
The Objective Correlative
T.S. Eliot claimed the only way to express emotion in art is through the use of an objective correlative. What’s that, you ask?
It’s an OBJECT that you CORRELATE to certain emotions.
Okay, that’s not much help. Here are a couple quick examples:
1. The One Ring in Lord of the Rings
Think about it: it’s not just a ring. It also represents greed and power, how power can corrupt, and how power can help you do awesome things like turn invisible and sneak past Gollum, for example.
2. The wilting enchanted rose in Beauty and the Beast
But it’s not just a flower, right? It represents the selfishness that got the dude turned into a beast in the first place. Plus, it’s a ticking clock: when the last petal falls off … well, I won’t spoil it for the three of you who haven’t seen the film.
3. The snow globe in Unfaithful
This film, co-penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent, has the most complex and clear use of an objective correlative I have ever seen in film. But note that this film is Rated M for Mature. Just sayin’.
How can you use an objective correlative to make a reader feel things?
Step 1: Program the object with qualities and emotions.
What do I mean by “program”? When you introduce the object, associate it with several emotions or values.
Example: Early in the film Toy Story we see that Andy, Woody’s owner, has written his name in big letters on the bottom of Woody’s shoe. This image—“ANDY” scrawled in kid handwriting on the bottom of Woody’s shoe—represents all the love, happiness, and friendship that connect Woody and Andy, all of which are established during the opening “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” montage.
Once you have associated your object with emotions and values, you will have turned that simple object into a complex objective correlative that you can do stuff with.
What kind of stuff? Like making the reader or viewer FEEL all sorts of things.